When we go back to school in September one aspect of teaching life should have changed for good. Due to an agreement made several years ago, qualified teachers, other than supply teachers, should no longer have to do cover, except for emergencies. (For those non-teachers reading this, cover is when, during “non-contact time” you have to take another teacher’s lessons because they are ill, on a trip or too important to actually have to teach their own classes.) There is no requirement that covers have to be for a teacher’s own subject, and in bad schools (i.e. most of them) classes will act up for teachers they don’t know. As a result, particularly when you are new to a school, covers tend to be a mix of baby-sitting and riot control, and only every so often is anything resembling a lesson allowed to take place.
Cover has always been a good way of telling how much a school cares about its teaching staff. This has been particularly in the last few years as many schools have significantly reduced the amount of covers, while the worst managed schools have continued as if workload agreements didn’t apply to them.
Here are some of the things schools can do to make covers as unpleasant as possible:
1) Make covers frequent. If a school really doesn’t care about teaching staff then dumping lots of cover on teachers is a cheap money saving option. It lowers morale, makes teachers more stressed and reduces time for marking and preparation, but unless you actually think that teachers should do their job well, there is no reason to avoid making their job unnecessarily difficult.
2) Make covers unpredictable. If teachers do not know in advance which hours of the day covers will take place, and could lose their non-contact time at the drop of a hat then they are unable to plan their day properly. As a result they will end up rushing to do all their preparation before school, or after school the previous day, even on days when they should have non-contact time. Mornings will be spent playing “cover roulette” gambling on whether you will be taken for cover or not and coming up with alternative schedules for the day’s work depending on whether or not you get taken for cover.
3) Organise covers informally. Leave it to people who are already busy, or even to absent teachers, to prepare lessons for teachers doing cover. Inevitably, most lessons end up being worksheets and wordsearches. Often teachers turn up to find no work set; sometimes because nobody has remembered to set it; sometimes because it has been left in the wrong place; sometimes because it has been destroyed by a student. Or the work may require resources that simply aren’t available, or only be enough for twenty minutes of an hour long lesson. And let’s not forget the 11 words which make up the worst cover-work of all: “They are working on their coursework. They know what to do.”
4) Pay no attention to who is being given covers. So for instance if there is a year 10 boys PE cover and the choice is between Mr Brown, an MFL teacher who is new to the school and doesn’t teach year 10, and Mr White, a PE teacher, who has been at the school twenty years, and is head of year 10, then give the cover to Mr Brown. If you are well established in a school then cover lessons become a convenient place to do marking while children sit quietly copying from a textbook. If you are new to a school covers are likely to be some kind of riot. At one school I worked at this distinction was so well recognised that I found that if I took a pile of marking into cover lessons the children just assumed I was important and behaved accordingly.
On top of that, there are things schools can do to really get the message across that when it comes to covers they are treating teachers like shit:
1) Make it clear to staff that you are deliberately trying to give them as many covers as possible. This one is hard to believe, why would bosses who treat their workforce badly publicise it? Yet I have frequently been in meetings where senior managers explained quite happily to staff that they were trying to find out what the maximum number of covers they could make staff do is, apparently under the impression that teachers would be so grateful that the school was trying to follow the rules, that they wouldn’t actually think “why are they trying to make things as unpleasant as possible for us?”
2) Don’t give SMT anywhere near as many covers as mainscale teachers, even though they have more non-contact periods.
3) Make excuses for making the cover situation so bad. For instance, claim that supply teachers can’t be trusted, or that non-teaching cover supervisors are incompetent, and that only people who already have a full time-table and backlog of work can be trusted to do the job properly.
So, goodbye, and good riddance, to covers. You will not be missed.